History is a fuzzy subject.
The one real, inescapable truth that comes out of any serious assessment of history is, realistically, how little you actually know about the in’s and outs of events, societies and people.
When you dig through dusty, moldy and sometimes starkly biased historical documentation or try to comprehend the social intricacies of an era by perusing a handful of broken pot shards, post holes and chipped foundation stones, you are, in essence, piecing together a barely legible puzzle, with incomplete pieces and an uncertain understanding of just what the hell a puzzle actually is…
I preface this review with the above remarks because I am very aware of how damnedly difficult history and archaeology can be as a subject and in Gavin Menzies’ book 1421, I’m sorry to note the author has overreached his subject. He has shot for the moon, and fallen sadly well-short.
1421 outlines Menzies’ theories regarding the exploits of Emperor Zhu Di’s famous five Admirals (Zheng He, Yang Qing, Zhou Man, Hong Bao and Zhou Wen) who, under Imperial command, set sail in five massive fleets of sea-going junks in 1421 to “proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas”. Menzies attempts to trace the routes of the five fleets, drawing on what little written historical record exists (the fleet records were destroyed by Zhu Di’s somewhat xenophobic successor), a number of early maps and charts, and a huge pile of unfortunately highly subjective and circumstantial evidence.
Menzies traces the five fleets literally around the globe, touching on literally every continent and region including North, Central and South America (both east and west coasts), the Caribbean, Africa (which, actually does have evidence of Chinese contact on the east coast at any rate as the region was well-travelled by Arab voyagers who, among other destinations, regularly plied their trade with China), Russia, Greenland, Australia, and Antarctica.
While some of the work that Menzies assembles crys out for a more scholarly and searching examination (namely his persistant claims to have uncovered evidence on a number of charts for Chinese contact with Australia and the U.S.’s west coast, and his evidence that the Chinese had developed significant navigational advances well in advance of Europe) the majority of his assumptions are built on a succession of loose guesses and highly circumstantial and subjective evidence. Indeed, towards the end of the book (when a Chinese fleet has landed almost everywhere it is possible to discover except for Europe), Menzies seems almost frantic to buttress his arguments. In Menzies’ hands, the fall of every sparrow is attributable to the five fleets.
Despite the highly questionable conclusions, 1421 does offer several highly commendable points – it brings to light an era of Chinese history and discovery that hitherto has been sadly under-examined by historians and raises a number of questions regarding the reach of the intrepid voyage of the Five Fleets. The author’s passion and excitement for his subject is clearly evident in his writing and although it overreaches, it’s nice to see someone shooting for the moon once in a while…
Incidentally, the book was titled 1421: The Year China Discovered the World everywhere except in the United States (where, as shown above, it was entitled 1421: The Year China Discovered America). I know that U.S. publishers routinely tweak titles to make them more applicable and appealing to U.S. markets but puh-leeze…Doesn’t it seem a trifle ridiculous and condescending to think that we would only care to read it if it was about us? Next thing you know they’ll be changing the titles of the Harry Potter books because people don’t know what a Philosopher’s Stone is….oh…wait a minute….they did change that one too. Oh. Sorry.
For more on 1421, check out the author’s website (it includes still more evidence not included in the book).
Find out more about the famous Piri Reis Map (cited in the book several times) here, here and here. You can also find the Kandigo map, and the Pizzigano Chart from the James Ford Bell Library (which has some excellent additional materials well worth a look (such as this)).
Comments are always welcome!